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Posts published in April 2013

A tale of two budgets

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

President Barack Obama’s budget request for 2014 does not roll back austerity. But it would significantly shift resources, adding money to important programs, and protecting much of Indian Country from government contraction.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs budget request is $2.6 billion, an increase of $31.3 million over what Congress enacted in 2012.

“The president’s budget request for Indian Affairs reflects his firm commitment to keeping our focus on strengthening and supporting tribal nations, and protecting Indian Country,” Kevin K. Washburn, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs reported last week. “While realizing the benefits from improvements to Indian Affairs program management, the request supports our mission to federally recognized tribes, particularly in the areas of trust lands and natural resource protection. The request also promotes economic development, improves education, and strengthens law enforcement and justice administration.”

There’s a lot to like in this year’s budget request. There would be additional money for law enforcement, police, courts, and expanded domestic violence services. There would more money for trust management and real estate. And, most important, there would be additional investments in the Bureau of Indian Education (such as a $3 million scholarship fund for post-graduate education in sciences).

To my way of thinking this budget does not represent what kind of education funding is needed. Indian Country represents a young population that I think should be an essential part of balancing the country’s demographics (basically the retirement of the baby boom generation plus a longer life expectancy). But that’s a bigger issue than this budget request. (A good detailed example of this is in The Washington Post’s wonkblog where Ezra Klein writes that the federal government spends $7 on the elderly for every $1 spend on kids.)

The funding picture is similar at the Indian Health Service, basically, a request for more, even if not enough. The president’s budget calls for $4.430 billion in direct spending, and a total increase of $243.6 million over what Congress enacted in 2012. “The request includes funds to support activities identified by the tribes as budget priorities including increasing resources for pay costs, funding medical inflationary costs for the Purchased/Referred Care program (formerly known as Contract Health Services); funding contract support costs shortfall; and staffing for new/replacement facilities,” according to the budget request to Congress.

It wasn’t all that many years ago that the president’s budget request for IHS was just the beginning of the process. The appropriations committees in the House and Senate would look at the numbers, match it to the need, and in many cases find more money to spend. If it were up to the subcommittee chairs that would still happen. The legislators who are nearest the actually programs and what they do understand the challenge and look for improvements. (more…)

Even in Holbrook

idaho RANDY
STAPILUS
 
The Idaho
Column

If the poet John Donne and the novelist Ernest Hemingway were right, that “no man is an island,” that we should “send not to know/For whom the bell tolls/It tolls for thee,” then we all are damaged by the carnage at Holbrook.

The case has gotten some attention, but so horrific is it that national viral status would almost be expected. It was a case of terror on so many levels.

In Holbrook.

Probably not many Idahoans easily could place Holbrook on a map. It is located about 10 miles west of Malad, in high open field country surrounded by mountains, country well away from population centers. I have driven through it a few times, but never had occasion to stop, partly because there was nothing to stop for, no visible commercial or public activity. It once was a true small town, but not an incorporated city, something places with as few as a dozen people have founded, and for decades has been more a clustering of houses. Population for the area is reported as 400; if you drive through, you may suspect that seems high.

Such places may be remote from metro areas, but the people there are not remote from each other. This isn't a matter of the vaunted small-town snoopiness, but the reality that with fewer people around, with fewer activities and distractions and less traffic, you see what goes on around you.

That's part of what makes the events there so disturbing.

The people who lived at the crime scene were not entirely distant from their community. On March 31, law enforcement officials said, the people in the house that became a crime scene hosted an Easter party. (As of last week, investigators were seeking out anyone who attended.) They might have seen something reportable.

There was plenty to see. A big pack of dogs was housed there – 64 pit pulls were found there about a week ago, with clear indications that at least many of them were being used for dog fighting. That activity, thanks to a recent change in Idaho law, is now a felony, and the reasons for that are not just because of the horrific effects on the dogs: It is often a good indicator that something has gone deeply wrong with the people involved, too. That was outside the house. Inside, investigators found 38 marijuana plants and enough cash to indicate significant trafficking was underway, another indicator of trouble. (more…)

Wherefore art thou, Mr. Chief Justice

rainey BARRETT
RAINEY

 
Second
Thoughts

As the U.S. Supreme Court wrestles with issues of our sexual differences and their standing in our society, I’m less worried about the ultimate decisions than I am about the connection of the Chief Justice to reality.

There can be little argument DOMA (Defense Of Marriage Act) became a law because of prejudice and bigotry. It was largely born of a narrow belief held by a religious minority which has previously sponsored similar “moral” legislation. Enactment of the California law known as “Prop 8″ came from the same despoiled garden of fear and hatred – and $28 million from the LDS Church. But remarks made by Chief Justice Roberts from the bench during arguments on the two issues seemed to reflect his mental world is one in which no law is created from any soiled motivations.

During general questioning of the DOMA case, Roberts seemed to reject the proposition that Congress could be motivated to create a law – any law – out of discrimination or animus. In fact, during discussion, he and some other Justices appeared ignorant of the roots of DOMA – until Justice Kagan read this part of the law aloud to Solicitor General Verrilli during her questioning.

“Civil laws that permit only heterosexual marriage reflect and honor a collective moral judgment about human sexuality. This judgment entails both moral disapproval of homosexuality, and a moral conviction that heterosexuality better comports with traditional (especially Judeo-Christian) morality.”

There were gasps in the room,. Then, from the Congressional Record dealing with the committee creation of DOMA, Kagan again quoted:

“…the Committee briefly discusses four of the governmental interests advanced by this legislation: (1) defending and nurturing the institution of traditional, heterosexual marriage; (2) defending traditional notions of morality.”

BOOM! Then silence in the court. After brief subsequent give-and-take between Kagan and Verrilli, Roberts simply said “Thank you” and matters moved on while other Justices wrote lengthy notes to themselves – apparently about what they’d just heard. But not Roberts.

Editor’s Note: Why did so many Justices seem surprised by what Kagan read? Had their law clerks not read all the briefs and summarized for the Court? Didn’t the Justices at least read the law before hearing arguments? Why the hurried note-taking?

Roberts’ personal and judicial history are spotless. There is no doubt of his moral and professional character. But – there is ample evidence of his seeming real world ignorance that less-than-honorable intentions can create bad law. In one case – PICS vs. Seattle School District No. 1 – he wrote “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” He basically dismissed the need for judicial action in the face of demonstrated outright discrimination. His side lost. (more…)

First take: The pledge, Walden’s kerfluffle

news

THE PLEDGE A solution in search of a problem? A bill now headed to the Oregon House floor would require that every classroom has to conduct a pledge of allegiance - though, per court decisions, students cannot be required to participate - and every one would have to maintain an American flag to salute. What exactly is the problem this is intended to counter?

WALDEN'S KERFLUFFLE Oregon Representative Greg Walden is in the U.S. House leadership and is even in charge of the caucus' campaign committee, which might suggest he's all but immune to intra-party conflict. But not so. A remark critical of cuts to Social Security increases, included in President Obama's proposed budget, drew a sharp rebuke from House Speaker John Boehner and earned Walden a target on his back for the Club for Growth, which indicates it is encouraging a primary challenge for him. As with the Club's targeting of similarly centrally-positioned Mike Simpson in Idaho, this seems like folly, though in-party battles often do have consequences one way or another.

A Democrat reviews the Idaho session

ridenbaugh Northwest
Reading

A review of the last Idaho legislative session from Idaho Democratic Chair Larry Kenck.

The 2013 Idaho Legislature exceeded expectations. By that measure, it succeeded. Unfortunately, our expectations are so low for this annual GOP-controlled event that we can call it a success if they don’t accidentally burn down the Capitol.

Let’s look at how they exceeded our expectations.

In December, Idaho’s wealthiest corporate interests had convinced everyone that a $140 million tax shift from big business to homeowners was a virtual certainty. Counties, cities, schools and Idaho Democrats crunched the numbers, rallied, and got the word out. In the end, small and medium-sized businesses saw their personal business property taxes cut without severely harming communities.

That was certainly better than we expected.

The Legislature also birthed a small group of Republicans who stood up to rightwing radicals who are still fighting the Affordable Care Act. This minority of the majority joined Idaho Democrats to help create a state-run health insurance exchange, benefiting consumers and giving Idaho control over insurance options.

That small triumph for moderation was unexpected.

Of course, we always expect some truly awful ideas to emerge from the GOP fringe. And, I suppose it’s fair to credit GOP leaders, along with Idaho Democrats, for killing some terrible legislation. (more…)

First take: Outside anti-levy

THE ANTI-LEVY Revealing piece in the Vancouver Columbian about the source of a campaign against the Battle Ground school district's regular levy: A retired Spokane tire dealer, with a couple of other residents of the city on the far side of the state. What he positions as a crippling tax increase is actually just a replacement for an already-existing levy, to be imposed at a lower rate than the old one. So many ballot issue campaigns degenerate to this.

So long, west coast conference

carlson CHRIS
CARLSON

 
Carlson
Chronicles

Memo to Zagnation and Zagnauts: Your beloved Bulldogs are once again going for the money. Make no mistake, it’s just a matter of time before they officially accept an invitation from the “new” Big East to join the Catholic Seven non-football playing members of the “old” Big East conference.

Forget about tradition. Forget about rivalries. In the words of motor-mouth basketball commentator, Dick Vitale, “it’s all about the money, baby, it’s all about the money.” Don’t forget, Zag fans, this is the same guy that guaranteed the nation’s basketball watching television audience that Wichita State would defeat Gonzaga in the NCAA Round of 32.

Yes, Gonzaga’s success over the last 16 years has spurred growth in applications and enrollment, and has helped to secure Gonzaga’s financial future. It has also enabled the school to undertake expansion and new buildings. It has become a Harvard business school case study, no doubt, on how to leverage success on the hardwood into success and stature in the competitive world of academia.

Yes, too, Gonzaga has come a long ways from the days in the early 60s when only Board Chairman Harry F. Magnuson’s personal guarantee behind a line of credit kept the doors open and averted bankruptcy. If not for the deep devotion by the late Wallace millionaire and investor no one would even be talking about the Zags today.

So, how much more money are we talking about and is it enough to offset the travel expenses that would come with being so far geographically from the Catholic Seven? The answers are lots more money and yes.

The latest figures available are two years old but they show that the Bulldog basketball program spent $5.3 million and its revenue was $6.1 million. That would put them in the middle of the Catholic Seven------Marquette (which has one national title), Villanova (one national title), Georgetown (one national title), DePaul, Seton Hall, Providence and St. John's.

Marquette, by contrast had $10.3 million in expenses, but revenue was a nice $15.6 million. Though Gonzaga’s numbers look middling to the new Big East, all these schools see great potential in games with the Zags generating much more revenue because the Zags national following would guarantee more television revenue for all.

Keep in mind that with the possible exception of St. Mary’s, no other school in the West Coast conference spends nearly as much as the Zags. Then there is the factor that coach Mark Few has reportedly wanted to leave the WCC for a number of years in no small part because the lower conference power ranking of the WCC compared to the Big East or the PAC-12 almost always presents a “strength of schedule” barrier that the Zags have to overcome to impress the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.

A tougher conference schedule would mean that Few would not have to schedule quite so many tough non-conference opponents.

One suspects that the additional dollars from television will easily off-set and over-come the travel distance barrier. The Zags already charter a large private jet for all of their away games and most Zagnauts are well aware that in order to become a “mid-major” power the Zags already travel great distances for quality games against premier opponents.

There is also a queue forming of other Catholic schools in the mid-west clamoring to join which, with Few reportedly wanting to leave the WCC, means there is behind-the-scenes courting and lobbying going on for the Zags to be the first new addition and the eighth school to join.

Speculation is already rampant among basketball junkies that before the next season the new Big East will have expanded to ten members with Creighton and Xavier joining and the one non-Catholic university, Butler (which made the national championship game two years in a row just two short seasons back) also joining.

If, the Zags indeed do join it would make the most sense to do so quite soon and the “new” Big East might then invite St. Louis to join also, giving it 12 teams that could be divided into two divisions with another one of those lucrative conference tournaments also adding more dollars.

Someone somewhere though should be asking just how much more “success” can the Zags absorb and will there ever be enough? What are the added costs to the student athletes in more long-distance travel? You can also bet that the price of those already expensive seats in the Zags arena will take another exponential jump.

After all, it really is about all the additional money. And by the way, look for the WCC to quickly tender an offer to Seattle University to take the Zags place.

A couple of swings

cascades RANDY
STAPILUS
 
West of
the Cascades

At the liberal Daily Kos site there's a set of statistics anyone interested in horserace politics should examine. It suggests where he heated congressional races in the Northwest (and the rest of the country) will be, as least in statistical probability, in the next few years.

What they did was to compile, for all of the new U.S. House districts around the country (those formed after reapportionment for this decade, before the last election) the outcomes of the last two presidential contests, by district. This provides a really useful alternative check against the actual U.S. House races, where individual candidates and campaigns, or unusual local elections, might influence a specific election. It gives you an idea of how much change a Republican or a Democrat really has of winning in the district.

In a district, for example, where Barack Obama won twice, or lost twice, by decisive margins, you can pretty much tell which party is likely to hold the congressional seat.

And for nearly all of the Northwest's 17 House districts, that result is very clear. In both Idaho's congressional districts, for example, Obama lost by more than 30 percentage points in 2012 and by more than 23 in 2008. That gives you a clue. So does Obama's wins each time by more than 45 points in Oregon 3 and Washington 7. These are among the most spectacular examples, but any time the gap approaches 10, the margins are too broad for a minority party to win under any but unusual circumstances. Or unless something important happens to change politics on the ground in those places.

There's one gray-area district, not really a true swing but not far from it. Oregon 5, won the last three elections by Democrat Kurt Schrader, voted for Obama both times, but narrowly (50.5% to 47.1% in 2012, and 53% to 44.2% in 2008). It's worth watching, because it's not far from even-odds competition.

Only two districts of the 17 are close enough, in the presidential count, and they are both in Washington state. One I would have guessed falls into this category is Washington 1, the new construct that runs from eastern King County to the Canadian line; but it turns out that Obama won there pretty decisively each time, by 54.1%-43.3% in 2012, and 56.3% to 41.9% in 2008.

The closest district isn't a massive surprise. It is Washington 3, in the southwest part of the state centered on Clark County, where Obama lost in 2012 by 47.9% to 49.6%, and won in 2008 by 50.9% to 47.1% - the only district of the 17 that flipped between parties in the two elections. Widely regarded now as a Republican district (maybe partly because of incumbent Jaime Herrera-Beutler's strong win in 2012), it may have closer margins than many suspect.

The same is true in Washington 8, also a new construct which includes the eastern King County area across the Cascades to the Wenatchee area and large regions beyond. It looks like a solidly Republican district, but turns out that - surprise! - Obama won it in both of the last two elections, 49.7% to 48.1% in 2012 and 51.5% to 46.8% in 2008. That's a narrow margin, but that's the point: This should be classed as a swing district, other conditions being equal, which could happen if incumbent Dave Reichert eventually opts out.

Look to those two districts for some of the congressional heat in the decade coming up.

More stories than spread sheets

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

Modern budgets in the federal government are more stories than spread sheets.

Consider the three competing budgets for 2014. The House budget is stark. There are no new taxes and spending drop below even the sequester levels. The Senate sets out a very different course. That budget plan increases taxes, mostly on the White House, and restores spending to many parts of the budget.

Today’s White House plan melds the House and Senate into a compromise plan. That is, if compromise is even possible in today’s political environment. Remember that no single plan, not the House, not the Senate, and certainly not the president’s, will be enacted into law without lots of changes, debates, and compromises. This is only the beginning of the process where every line is written in pencil. (The Washington Post has a great graphic that shows how rare it is for a president’s budget to actually get enacted.)

But this is a smart budget. It’s might even work because it’s neither the House nor the Senate approach.

“The budget also incorporates the president’s compromise offer to House Speaker Boehner to achieve another $1.8 trillion in deficit reduction in a balanced way,” the White House says. “When combined with the deficit reduction already achieved, this will allow us to exceed the goal of $4 trillion in deficit reduction, while growing the economy and strengthening the middle class. By including this compromise proposal in the budget, the president is demonstrating his willingness to make tough choices and his seriousness about finding common ground to further reduce the deficit.”

There is a lot to like in the president’s budget because it invests in the areas of government that require more money, mainly education. If you pull back and look at the big picture, the federal government’s primary challenge is demographic -- an aging workforce that’s ready to retire -- so the best answer is to invest heavily in education, so that young people have the skills to earn as much income as possible. (Instead of what we’re doing now: Loading up this generation with student debt.)

The budget: “Improves college affordability and value with a continued commitment to Pell Grants; budget-neutral student loan reforms that will make interest rates more market-based; a $1 billion Race-to-the-Top fund to support competitive grants to States that drive higher education reform, while doing more to contain tuition; a $260 million First in the World fund to spur cutting-edge innovations that decrease college costs and boost graduation rates; and reforms to Federal campus-based aid to reward colleges that set responsible tuition policy, provide a high-quality education and better serve students with financial need.” (more…)

View from the middle, or something like it

ridenbaugh Northwest
Reading

The Independent Party of Oregon recently polled members on a variety of issues, and released the results this week. From their statement on the polling results, in a party very roughly positioned between Democratic and Republican:

82% agreed that "The cost of PERS exceeds the state's ability to pay and should be reformed to reduce expenses."

A majority supported each of the reforms contained in the Oregon School Boards Association Proposal for PERS reform. The most favored reform was stopping payments to out of state retirees to cover their Oregon state taxes that they do not actually pay.

A majority did not support "rate collaring" as a means of reducing PERS costs.

Only 11% thought that PERS reform was not needed.

Only 6% stated they were "willing to pay more in taxes in order to protect retirement benefits for state workers."

76% favored reducing tax breaks for wealthy individuals.
69% favored reducing tax breaks for corporations.

50.0% favored capping at $30,000 per person the income tax deductions and credits claimed on state income tax returns.

No other proposals for cutting costs or increasing revenues earned majority approval.

The most popular potential additional tax was a sales tax (38% approved), while increases in income taxes and property taxes were highly disfavored.

IPO Members strongly support consumer protection & economic development legislation.

89% opposed a 2011 law that repealed a 2005 statute prohibiting private utilities (like PGE) from charging ratepayers for "income taxes" that the utilities actually do not pay.

Large majorities favored legislation intended to protect consumers from unfair practices and greater public review of health insurance rate hikes.

Large majorities approved awarding government contracts under rules giving preference to Oregon-based companies and providing tax credits for capital construction in Oregon for companies that hire new Oregon workers

50% approved of automatically registering to vote all persons who prove their U.S. citizenship and Oregon residency to government agencies, such as DMV.

Increased spending on transportation infrastructure received only 45% approval. IPO Members strongly support opening Oregon's primary election to all minor parties.

98% agreed that Oregon should allow minor parties to participate in the state's primary election instead of being compelled to conduct their own primary elections or caucuses.

Bend or break

cascades RANDY
STAPILUS
 
West of
the Cascades

Politics - in the campaigning end of it, that is - is full of people "stand firm", who are resolute, who have the backbone to stick fiercely to their principles.

Most of this is garbage, of course. Effective political people know that blind adherence to points of view often generates either little accomplishment or, sometimes, deep defeat. For a politician, it can put you at risk. For an organization, too.

Which brings me to two widely disparate kinds of groups with similar problems: The National Rifle Association, and Oregon's public sector unions.

After the Sandy Hook shootings late last year, my thought about what the NRA ought to do, as a matter of self-preservation and in the real interests of its membership, was simple: Compromise. Give in a bit on some of the ideas, such as universal background checks, that even President Wayne LaPierre strongly supported only a decade ago. A few such modest moves would be enough to position the NRA, and by extension many gun owners, as well within the mainstream, without giving up anything very important to their interests. Politically, that was the smart move.

As we know, they didn't do that. Short term, this may not matter, but long term, after a few more mass shootings (which as we all know will happen), this will be an over-stiff branch that rather than bending with the wind may be broken by it.

Similar point, and the real subject today, applies to Oregon's public section labor unions.

The topic of the day for them is singular, but in-state significant: What to do about the heavily escalating cost of PERS, the public employee retirement system, which is one of the most generous in the country.

The costs of paying for those obligations is cutting deeply into budget for public schools and almost everything else, and probably only a sliver of people in Oregon would argue that costs ought to be trimmed. That could be done with no substantial damage to retirees, as part of an overall budget and revenue package. The Oregon school boards association has proposed a PERS change that might in fact bear down in some retirees, but Governor John Kitzhaber has proposed one that seems to hit a sweet spot - saving quite a large chunk of money but impacting retirees only very lightly or, in most cases, not at all. Proposed in his state of the state, it would objectively seem easy to support. (more…)

In this week’s Briefings

portneuf exhibit
 
One of the images on display at the exhibit “Nature Photography of The Portneuf Valley in Spring” sponsored by the Idaho Museum of Natural History, on display in the Cordillera Gallery at Walrus and Carpenter Books April 5. (image/Idaho State University)

 

Legislature wrapup was a key subject last week in Idaho, and showdowns in Washington as well; the setup for a possible jam-through of the budget chairs' PERS bill may be the big deal this week in Salem.

Meantime, and not unrelated, springtime seems to be kicking in.

More followup in next week's Briefings.